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All's Weill at Ravinia with LuPone

08.10.09
Patti LuPone
Chicago Tribune

By John von Rhein

Although the Chicago Symphony Orchestra drew top billing, Saturday's concert at Ravinia clearly belonged to the one and only Patti LuPone. The charismatic music-theater diva was returning to the festival to headline an all-Kurt Weill program that played to her vaunted strengths as a singing actress blessed with Broadway bona fides.

Ravinia's final salute of the summer to the German composer who split his career between Berlin and Broadway reunited the Tony Award-winning LuPone with her former Juilliard School classmate, Ravinia music director James Conlon. The concert drew a sizable, appreciative crowd despite the oppressively muggy weather.

Conlon's varied program set the last of Weill's "German" works -- his 1933 ballet chante (sung-ballet) "The Seven Deadly Sins" -- alongside eight songs he composed for various Broadway shows following his Immigration to America in the 1930s.

It's time to lay to rest the tired contention that Weill sold his artistic soul to the commercial pressures of his newfound Broadway milieu.

When LuPone curled her smoky voice around such "American" classics as "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and Bertolt Brecht's caustic lyrics to "Mack the Knife" (from Weill's biggest German success, "The Threepenny Opera"), the similarities in musical style and tone were far more striking than any dissimilarities. In truth, the Berlin Weill and the American Weill were one.

"Seven Deadly Sins," his final collaboration with Brecht, is a modern morality play pickled in wry. Two sisters who really are one person -- the realistic Anna I and the natural Anna II -- test each of the sins as they visit various American cities in quest of money to build a house for their family in Louisiana.

Anna's family is represented by a male vocal quartet -- taken here by the terrific ensemble Hudson Shad -- mouthing Brecht's Marxist attacks on bourgeois materialism. Weill's score, alive with jaunty fox trot, shimmy and waltz rhythms, provides independent, even innocent, counterpoint to Brecht's caustic cynicism.

True to precedent established by Lotte Lenya, the German actress and chanteuse who was Weill's wife and favored interpreter, LuPone sang the vocal part to "Seven Deadly Sins" transposed downward to lie more comfortably for her.

Heard through discreet amplification, her voice sounded in good shape, a potent mix of flinty toughness and honeyed rue. She missed no ironic nuance or sly aside in the English translation, which was flashed on the video screens in the pavilion. (Lawn patrons weren't so lucky.)

After intermission, LuPone treated the fans to lushly orchestrated favorites from the Weill songbook. The material -- some of it familiar, but much of it not -- gave the Broadway baby a chance to cut loose and enjoy herself. The crowd certainly did.

Through it all, Lupone's care for what the lyrics mean (on the surface and subliminally), her ability to move in an instant from a tender purr to a scalding cry, were marvelous.

Conlon supplied plenty of bite and swing of his own, not just in the songs and "Seven Deadly Sins," but also in Robert Russell Bennett's jazzy "Symphonic Nocturne," drawn from music for Weill's 1941 show "Lady in the Dark."

Following the program proper, the stage was cleared, a piano was wheeled out, and LuPone further delighted the crowd with a post-concert Weill cabaret. Joining her for the songs "Je Ne T'Aime Pas" and "Lost in the Stars" were pianist and Ravinia Chief Executive Welz Kauffman and an accordionist. Great fun on a steamy night at Ravinia.